TV EYE: Doctor Who, Week 9: ‘The Family of Blood’

We’ve reached episode 9, and the climax of the two-part adaptation of Paul Cornell’s Who novel Human Nature. A brief review follows, backed up with a gigantic (hopefully not too rambling) discussion of the episode’s finale and how it impacts on the character of the Doctor. Fear the spoilers…

As I said last week, high expectations are dangerous things. They can leave you disappointed as a result of the smallest problems, especially in the case of ‘The Family of Blood’, which only fell short of my expectations by not completely blowing me away, and instead only being very, very good. New Who has given itself a hell of a target to beat in last year’s ‘Girl in the Fireplace’, and while the two-part adaptation of Human Nature might not quite have scaled those heights, it’s still the kind of drama that makes me want to pinch myself to check that I’m not dreaming, and that it really is being broadcast at peak time on a Saturday night. Dealing with themes of sacrifice and social responsibility, as well as dragging up the horrors of World War One and making them relevant and resonant, it was a beautiful piece of work only marred by a couple of over-directed moments and Murray Gold going for bombast when something quieter would have been far more effective (The ‘flash-forwards’ to John Smith and Joan’s life together somehow managed to feel more genuinely affecting to me in last week’s teaser, accompanied by more haunting music, than in the episode itself). What he was thinking with the sleigh-ride music accompanying the march of the Scarecrows was anyone’s guess…

Despite any of the small churlish niggles I may have experienced, I don’t want to talk about them, or about the fact that Tennant pulled off his best performance in the series so far, or that Freema Agyeman continues to be a breath of fresh air and a terrific companion, or that this season, even with the mess that was Evolution of the Daleks, actually feels like Who, rather than the program that was masquerading as it last season. What I want to talk about is the climax, and my feelings about the changes that are coming over the character of the Doctor as a result of the events of the new series.

The finale of ‘The Family of Blood’, with the Doctor entrapping young girls in mirrors and catapulting villains into stars, is definitely one of the series most genuinely out-there moments, and it’s in keeping with a movement that’s been in the character ever since the end of the classic series, and was expanded further in the New Adventures which, even without the Human Nature adaptation, have been widely held as the ‘prototype’ version of New Who. In an attempt to inject mystery back into the character, the Seventh Doctor was gradually turned very dark in his last few stories, with Sylvester McCoy going from gurning opposite an evil version of Bertie Basset, to one of the most disturbing scenes in Who, as the Doctor deliberately destroys his companion’s faith in him so that she doesn’t accidentally prevent a plan going ahead. The Doctor was recast as a game player, an arch-manipulator who’d happily sacrifice others for the greater good. In fact, Paul Cornell took this about as far as it could go in his novel Love and War, where then-companion Ace falls in love with a traveller called Jan, and almost the entire book is the Doctor manipulating events so that Jan has to sacrifice his life, leading to Ace leaving the TARDIS in disgust. For those who’d been following the show, and the previous novels (especially Cornell’s debut novel Timewyrm: Revelation), seeing the Doctor/Companion team melt down so spectacularly was genuinely powerful, and despite the obvious need to go for eventual closure, I couldn’t help wishing that they’d let the story stand there, instead of bringing Ace back as a slightly older, more battle-hardened and less interesting character five books later.

It was this manipulative, arrogant side of the Doctor that I disliked, and which eventually turned me off reading the New Adventures, only returning for the occasional books (one of which was Human Nature, which I was incredibly grateful for). While I put this down as a simple dislike of the book series’ attempt to turn the nature of the series more adult– especially in novels like Cat’s Cradle: Warhead, which showed clearly how utterly wrong a Battlestar Galactica-style adult re-imagining of Who would be, what I wasn’t expecting was this to filter into the new series to such a dramatic extent, and be presented as an important part of the character.

Having grown up reading the classic Terrance Dicks, I’ve got the ‘never cruel or cowardly’ description of the Doctor written into my idealised version of the character, and it’s certainly true that, to all intents and purposes, the Doctor never really changes during the classic series, and it’s only when the production team tries to force change (Let’s have the Doctor go a bit mad! Let’s give him an incredibly colourful costume!) that it all goes wrong. Watch enough of the classic series, and you soak up the idea that the Doctor has certain values- there are things he will do, and there are things he won’t do (which is one of the reasons why the shot of John Smith holding the rifle in ‘The Family of Blood’ feels so fundamentally disturbing and wrong- we know that the Doctor wouldn’t even pick the gun up, and the idea that Smith might go too far is genuinely scary). There are times when the old series bent these ideas- especially in the succession of ‘dark, gritty’ stories in the Eighties, which revolved around Sam Peckinpah-style bloodbaths where hardly a character was left standing- but for the most part, they were there, and they were reliable.

It therefore came as a bit of a surprise when the Doctor came back, and turned out to be a bit of a vengeful sod. It wasn’t so much the obvious darkening of the character as a result of his experiences in the Time War, or his decision to let Cassandra perish in ‘End of the World’– it was the treatment of Adam in ‘The Long Game’ that set alarm bells ringing. Now, the basic idea of The Long Game was an interesting one- setting up a companion who isn’t up to the time-travel thing, and who tries to use it for financial gain- but the fact that the Doctor not only dumps Adam back at home, but in effect punishes him by deliberately leaving the ‘brain hatch’ implant in his head rather took me aback. The fact that it was also played for laughs wasn’t something I liked either– Adam had been deliberately engineered as an unlikeable, ‘bad’ character, rather than simply an unwise or foolish one, simply so that we laugh at him when he’s left trying to avoid hearing a clicking noise so his brain doesn’t get exposed. I tried to imagine any of the other Doctors doing something as deliberately vindictive as that… and while I might be mistaken, I don’t think they’d do it. Preventing Adam from seeing any more of the stuff he so desperately wants to see should be enough– but it isn’t, and it was a turn in the character that made me stop, and pause for thought.

As the show progresses, the Doctor has been painted as a force of nature, someone who it’s wise not to get on the wrong side, and the vengeful side has continued to show up in a variety of different ways. Lest we forget, one of the first things the Tenth Doctor does is kill someone– okay, it’s a rampaging alien warrior who’s trying to kill him, and he uses the whimsical method of doing it it with a satsuma, but he’s still just unreservedly taken a life, saying “No second chances”, and then goes on to bring down Harriet Jones for the morally dark but at least understandable decision of bringing down the Sycorax ship with Torchwood’s new Death Star Laser toy (thus ending the supposed ‘Golden Age’, and possibly creating a power vacuum that might factor into the third season’s climax in interesting ways…). It’s as if they’re pulling the Doctor in two seperate directions– in certain respects, the Ninth and Tenth Doctor have been even more human than ever, while at the same time also being almost superhuman forces of justice whose rage tends to flatten anything within range. There’s a judgemental streak to the Tenth Doctor that doesn’t always sit right with me, and feels at odds with the compassionate, non-violent nature of the character (I guess, this is partly a result of growing up during the Baker and Davison eras)– things change, and it’s very possible that the original version of the Doctor, who is essentially a melodramatic character, wouldn’t work in the far more dramatically based new series, but the factoring in of this tendency towards vengeance into the morality of the Doctor is something that bothers me– not so much that it’s there, but that nobody ever calls him on it. It’s a sign of his alien nature, like in ‘The Runaway Bride’, when he looks imperiously down on the dying Empress of Racnoss and refuses to help, but it’s only there to emphasise his difference and ‘otherness’. It’s was used powerfully in ‘Dalek’, but since then, it’s still turning up, and nobody ever suggests that it’s wrong, or that there might be a better way– which was one of the reasons why I was so surprised by the ending of ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ where, in a scene that says everything about my idealised version of Who, the Doctor confronts the last of the Daleks, and this time offers to help. It’s an act of compassion, rather than destruction, and I can’t help wishing that this kind of thing happenned more in New Who, as it’s the kind of thing that makes Who unique in its worldview.

All of which brings us, after an extremely long time, back to the climax of Human Nature, a sequence that establishes the mythic, frightening nature of the Doctor far more effectively than anything ever managed during the last few years of the classic version of the show. It’s clearly showing the difference between John Smith and the Doctor- pushing the Doctor’s reactions up to an almost biblical level, and turning him into a character of myth, rather than the wandering odd-job man and adventurous scientist he’s often been painted as before. The sequence has a fairy-tale edge, and almost plays like something you’d be more likely to find in an Arabian Nights tale or an issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. It’s also a sequence that I can almost see fitting in with the William Hartnell version of the character, particularly in the first few episodes of the series, where the Doctor is a menacing, crotchety bugger who’d happily smash a caveman’s skull in if it meant getting back to the TARDIS quicker.

On it’s own, the sequence is creepy, disturbing, and oddly powerful. Taken in the context of the rest of the series – and even the rest of the story it’s a part of – it’s a different story, and feeds into the conflict between Who’s unchangeable nature as a sci-fi adventure show, and RTD’s looser, more fantasy-based approach to the storytelling. Once you’ve got characters imprisoning villains in mirrors or transforming them into scarecrows, you’ve firmly crossed the line from science into magic (especially since the Doctor’s never showcased this kind of power before)- but the trouble is, you can’t just hide Who’s sci-fi identity in a box and hope it’ll go away. Give a character seemingly god-like powers, and you start wondering why he doesn’t do this kind of thing more often, and in this case you’re left with a rather more significant problem. Namely– if the Doctor could do this kind of thing, why didn’t he do it before he started? It’s described as an act of ‘kindness’ on the Family, hiding on Earth as a human until the Family’s three month life-span is up, rather than unleashing the full force of his retribution– but as well as pulling the threat out from underneath the story, it doesn’t explain why the Doctor is (or appears) genuinely scared of the Family in the first episode. It also means that, however indirectly, everyone who died as a result of the Family wouldn’t have had to if the Doctor had just gone ahead and done whatever he needed to do to stop them, and his vengeance ends up feeling majorly disproportionate, at least in logical terms. In Who villainy terms, the Family actually generate a pretty mild body count- the Doctor’s definitely encountered villains who’ve caused more devastation, and he’s never been tempted to get medieval to this extent before.

Of course, he might be sublimating his rage at what he had to go through as John Smith- but it’s here that the Doctor almost becomes the villain of the piece. After all, despite his assurances that ‘John Smith’ is still inside him, the personality that’s created as John Smith essentially has to die in order for the Doctor to be ‘rebooted’, and if everything had gone according to plan, all that would have changed would be that John Smith wouldn’t have known anything until the metaphorical guillotine fell. Maybe John Smith being forced to deliberately sacrifice himself is what the Doctor’s reacting to, but there’s still the sense of distance, of standing in judgement, and of a degree of arrogance to the Doctor that only occasionally gets pointed out. Leaving the Family trapped on Earth, doomed to live out their last month and then die would have been just as suitable a revenge- suspending them in an eternal living death is, frankly, a few steps past extreme. As with much of New Who, it becomes a matter of faith- of taking the emotional part of the story on board, and not trying to add up the constituent parts that surround it.

It’s just yet another sign of how amazingly important the stories that you experience can end up influencing you, and shaping how you view the world. The Doctor was a vital companion for me, for a while- he was someone who showed exactly how limitless the world of sci-fi could be, and I can still remember walking home from school, desperately hoping that I’d hear that familiar wheezing groaning sound, see the TARDIS appear, and get to leap in and disappear off on adventures. Sometimes, watching New Who is like watching an old, trusted friend behaving in a deeply unsettling way– but, for the most part, I’m still glad that it’s back, and while the third season hasn’t always been the strongest, it does seem to be turning into the most consistently watchable series of New Who yet.

There’s just a handful of moments where I miss my old friend, and wish he’d treat the world a little more kindly.

4 thoughts on “TV EYE: Doctor Who, Week 9: ‘The Family of Blood’

  1. I don’t think I’d say that Adam desperately wanted to see the universe. He looked at the universe and saw himself, rich and famous – another Van Statten. That’s why he gets tossed off the TARDIS, and I don’t entirely blame the Doctor for feeling that here was person who ought not to be left to his own devices.
    My only problem with the Doctor’s choice is that Martha is now doing the same thing Adam did. She looks at the universe and sees the Doctor. There’s very little indication that she gets something out of traveling in the TARDIS in its own right.
    I didn’t grow up with old Who, so I can’t speak to the comparison between Davies’s Doctors and the original ones, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to tar Nine and Ten with the same brush when it comes to their cruelty and vengefulness. Nine was a great deal more mature than Ten. He recognized that the universe didn’t revolve around him and that the fact that a person had tried to kill him, or someone he loved, or an entire planet, didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t deserve a second change. Ten is unbelievably self-centered. He takes everything personally, insults most particularly. He’s, as fandom likes to put it, emo. Both Doctors were capable of great cruelty, but only Ten seems to feel that people ought to feel sorry for him because of this.
    And yes, the show doesn’t seem to expect us to notice. One of the reasons I liked HN/TFoB so much is that the Doctor is almost villainous – towards the end of the story, John Smith speaks of him as though he were a boogeyman or a monster. And yet, it’s the same Doctor, being seen from a different persepctive.
    You are right, however, about the Family’s punishment being disproportionate. No matter how you slice it, the Doctor comes off very badly from that scene – more badly than I think the show can sustain.

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    • You’re right- I may be reading Adam’s character from The Long Game wrong- it’s one of the S1 episodes I really couldn’t cope with watching more than once. The pettiness of the scene at the end of the episode does grate- but I guess what really annoys is that it’s a set-up for such an amazingly cheap and predictable gag.
      Also, you’re right that the general vengefulness gets a hell of a lot more pronounced once the Ninth regenerates into the Tenth- I didn’t quite get it across in what I was writing, which is one of the downsides of allowing myself to ramble. The vengeful nature is there in the Ninth, but (except in the case of how I felt about the Adam situation) it feels organic and part of the occasionally dark and brooding nature of the character. The Tenth Doctor, on the other hand, is borderline schizoid in the way he bounces from ‘mad as a badger’ to ‘vengeful god’, and, yes, is spectacularly self-centered in a way the writers don’t always seem to realise.
      The Doctor does end up feeling surprisingly like a villain at the end of Family of Blood– and another aspect that doesn’t help that is John Smith’s sacrifice happening offscreen. Essentially, it’s the bravest thing the character does, allowing himself to essentially die and be subsumed back into the Doctor- and we don’t get to see it. It’s a device that’s used in the novel, but there are a couple of twists that still enable Smith to get a goodbye scene, and it’s surprising what removing that does to the sense of who the Doctor is at the end of the story.
      I read on one of your other comments on a post about HF/FiB about your feelings on the final farewell and the flash-forwards- and I’d agree that it’s mainly there to end the episode on a happier note, as well as underlining the themes (The ‘flash-forwards’ to the war and the present day also feature in the original book). It would have been astoundingly brave for them to have ended directly after the scene with Joan– but then, I think it’s pretty impressive that they did the story at all, and refused to water it down or throw in random silliness to make it more appealing. I just wish that someone would take Murray Gold, lead him to a dictionary, and show him the definition of the word ‘subtle’– his recent material has been an improvement, but my god he can still swamp a scene in music when he tries, especially in the final scenes…

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      • I’m of two minds about the decision to keep Smith’s sacrifice offscreen. On the one hand, I was expecting it, and the choice to cut that scene in favor of a simple gag seems awfully dismissive of a very likable character. On the other hand, I was expecting it, and while it was obvious to me that Smith would choose to change back at some point I wasn’t at all certain that he’d done so when he pretended to surrender to the Family (and as for goodbyes, I think Smith’s last conversation with Joan certainly counts). On the other other hand, I was expecting it, and I feel a bit cheated. So I really don’t know.

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  2. I find this streak of darkness in the Doctor quite engaging. It’s not that you’d necessarily want to be around him when it happens, but makes him a little more interesting as a character.
    The problem, if there is one, is that he’s becoming a contradiction–he’s only sometimes lacking in mercy. ‘The Family of Blood’ takes the depiction of his vengeance so far that it sacrifices believeable characterisation for poetic style. Or, if it doesn’t, then the implication is that we really don’t know the Doctor at all. I think it’s a little of both. It’s partly that the writers are, as you note, returning some mystery and darkness to the character. And it’s partly that his portrayal is inconsistent.
    I don’t necessarily have a problem with this. Real people are contradictory too, and lot of the Doctor’s contradictions are just different facets of the same character. These days the Doctor of the TV series is a nearly-disillusioned idealist: the man who’s lived too long and seen too much and been tainted by it, but still tries to be the person he always was. It’s as if he lives day to day as a basically good, moral man who tries to do his best, but that just beneath the surface seethes a barely controlled righteous anger that sometimes sneaks out. On his good days his better self wins out and he’ll show compassion to a Dalek–but there’s a significant chunk of him that’s irrevocably pragmatic. It makes him both likeable and terrifying.
    You know, I like that in a character.
    It’s the same thing I like in Mal Reynolds, even though this has only just occurred to me as I’m typing and the idea that you can equate the Doctor and Mal Reynolds probably serves as a damning indictment of the Doctor!

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